Posted by Edelweiss Patterns on November 17, 2012
This week I have a real treat to share with you! While recently wearing a new 1940s dress of mine to church, a dear lady who grew up in the ’40s began telling me all about her clothing from back then, and what life was like as a teenager during World War II. Shortly thereafter she brought over a whole stash of high school and college yearbooks, photographs, mementoes, and war letters that she had saved all these years – I thought I’d gone to heaven! Well anyhow, this sweet lady named Betty graciously allowed me to scan many of the images contained therein, so I wanted to pass them along to my readers! Betty also wrote down the most fascinating wartime history I’d ever heard. This article below is my tribute to all the men and women of the 1940s who sacrificed so much so that America as they knew it could go on.
The year was 1944. It was a balmy evening at the Hotel del Coronado, and for just one night the graduating class of San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School were setting aside the war-time worries to celebrate their festivities. In a display of pomp unfamiliar to recent years, a jubilant crowd of youngsters sporting newly-purchased formal wear dined on sumptuous dishes and tapped about the dance floor to strains of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”.
All too soon the realities of rationing, Army drafts, and political uncertainty would come back to face them. But for this evening they would try their best to forget the gloomy realities of teenaged life as they knew it. If only for a few hours, the one hundred young graduates whirled their cares away while dancing to the lighthearted melodies made famous during WWII.
Betty Handley was the girl on the far left of this photo. In the center was her best friend.
Seventeen-year-old Betty Handley (the girl in the left of this picture), was most excited to be attending the senior prom that evening! Although her favorite soldier (and future husband) was out of the country, she was still looking forward to this milestone which symbolized the end of her school years. So that night it was with great anticipation that Betty curled her hair, applied her makeup, and got all decked out in her pastel pink lacy gown! This brand new dress had a lovely peplum below the waist, sweetheart neckline, and short puffed sleeves. She looked adorable! And her best friend (the girl in the center of the photograph) wore a dress which was the same color – light pink. That evening, could Betty ever have guessed that within two short years her fiancee would be home from the war to claim his bride, and her best friend would re-wear this exact pink gown to be the maid of honor in her wedding?
Notice the similarites in these evening gowns worn by Betty’s classmates! All the dresses have sweetheart necklines, short puffed sleeves, and soft, flowing skirts.
WWII as a Teenager
But for now all she knew was that her father was overseas in New Caledonia, her husband-to-be was fighting in European combat, and life during her entire teenaged years had been, in a word, uncertain. Betty remembers, “I was 13 years old when Poland was invaded by Germany and World War II was declared. I remember listening to all Winston Churchill’s famous speeches on the radio, and the broadcasts by Edward R. Murrow from London during the Battle of Britain. Princess Elizabeth (now an 86-yr-old queen) was also 13 when the war began. One of my friends, who was visiting Europe at the time, narrowly escaped with her family ahead of the German invasion of The Netherlands. So World War II was very personal for me even before the U.S. was involved…….. I graduated from junior high school at the end of 1940 and entered East High School in Denver, CO in January 1941. In May 1941 my mother and stepfather moved to San Diego, CA, and I postponed entering a new high school until September 1941. In my English class was a British boy named Gerald, who had been sent to live with relatives in the U.S. to escape the bombings in Britain. On December 7, 1941 WWII entered a new phase with the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. Our whole school sat in the gyms to listen to President Roosevelt issue a declaration of war on Japan. Very, very sobering.”
These three men represent only a few of the many dozens of former students from Betty’s school who were killed in combat.
Air Raid Preparations
Almost overnight, life in San Diego turned upside down. The presence of the enormous US naval base in that city made it a potential target for the enemy, so air raid sirens were installed to prepare the residents for a possible attack. The city quickly put dark paint over all the street lights on the “seaward” side, and banned neon signs facing the harbor so the city could be “blacked out” in the event of an air raid. Betty remembers, “… blackout exercises were held where the sirens went wailing, and everyone extinguished all their lights wherever they were – in their car, their home, etc. No one knew when the sirens went off however, whether there was really an enemy aircraft above until the all-clear sounded. We had all been listening to radio broadcasts and seeing news reels at the movie theaters of air raids and bombings, especially of Britain, for a couple of years, so it was scary to have it happening in San Diego. I was just 15 during this time. Still life went on for a high school student………..”
A touching tribute published in the Herbert Hoover 1944 yearbook.
By the time Betty was graduating from high school, she had been corresponding with Bill Woodward, her husband-to-be, for a number of years. She was just fifteen years old and he was twenty four when they had first met. Now, with Bill overseas in Ireland, England, Africa, and Italy, Betty could still reach him in a reasonable amount of time. Using the “V-mail” system (which stood for “Victory Mail”), she could send a tiny note to a stateside Army base where the letter was photographed, sent overseas as a microfilm image, then printed off in Europe once the note reached its intended recipient. At the time, the American public was told that “what would take 37 bags of regular mail can be transported to our troops in just one bag using the microfilm technology!” The letter below is one of the many v-mail letters Betty received from her father. This is such a touching letter, so if you can’t read all the text be sure to click the image (and set your screen settings to larger than 100%, if necessary) to enlarge it.
“Betty I sure do wish I could be there to see you on that grand day…” wrote her father. “Do you know just how fortunate I am to have such wonderful children as you?”
Fashion on Ration
Since Betty & I both share a love for 1940s fashion, she was kind enough to pass along her memories of this remarkable decade: “What has all this to do with fashion and my mementos? Well, rationing went into effect for one thing. All silk and later newly-developed nylon, was designated for the war effort. (Parachutes for one thing.) This picture of the dress in the school newspaper -advertising the rayon fabric – says it all. We had rayon stockings to wear for church, not silk or nylon, and if we got a run, we mended it over and over, because new ones were not always available. I had a rayon dress similar to the style in that one picture (below).
This 1940s rayon dress was advertised in Betty’s high school newspaper.
About her rayon dress Betty continues, “I didn’t like it that much because it had to be ironed. We had seersucker that I presume was cotton. Two of my favorite dresses were in that fabric, one of them a royal blue ‘dressy’ dress that made me feel like a princess. The lace used in my wedding dress was rayon, so it was a useful, though not highly prized material. Our clothing styles didn’t change much – – – fashion at that time pretty much came out of France which was still occupied by Germany. Most designers were occupied with the war effort, designing weapons, aircraft and such, not creating new styles. Such homely things as cotton sheets were hard to get, and when worn thin, were patched or mended. I’ll never forget how mad my mother was when I tore a big hole in one of my sheets deliberately, and she had to repair it, not replace it.”
Here Olivia de Havilland posed as “Rosie the Riveter” for a war poster. Somehow this isn’t quite as pretty as her usual costumes.
Rosie the Riveter
Betty explains, “And with movie censorship still in effect, women’s clothing was generally very modest. In San Diego there were a number of aircraft factories and many women workers, so it became acceptable to see women on the street at all times in slacks and casual tops with their hair bound up in scarves, ala Rosie the riveter. In fact may teens and younger women, began to wear their hair in scarves to choir practice and evening meetings at church, to hide curlers or to avoid washing or styling their hair. “Grown-ups” hated the look, but we thought it was rather sophisticated. Picture Joan Crawford in a stylish turban….”
A group shot of Betty’s classmates in her first year of college.
Dickeys to the Rescue!
One of the funniest things Betty shared with me was an anecdote about their school’s dress code. “Back then, we girls weren’t allowed to wear any sweaters to school unless we had a blouse underneath.” Apparently the school board had concerns about the suitability of sweaters in class for some reason, but how were girls supposed to survive sunny California while wearing two thick layers of fabric? So most of the female students got the idea to just wear a dickey under their sweaters, and the school leadership was none the wiser! Betty also points out about the above photograph, “Notice that all the collars were winged collars – Peter Pan collars didn’t come ‘in’ until the 1950s.”
This is the actual paper bouquet used in the 1944 graduation ceremony. It’s still in excellent condition!
But it wasn’t just clothing that was being rationed! All the graduating senior girls from Betty’s class in 1944 carried paper bouquets down the aisle rather than real flowers. Betty adds, “This was most probably because food was being grown, not flowers for the public. The exotic and prolific choices of floral blooms, as well as foodstuffs, didn’t appear till well after WWII. They weren’t available during the Depression years either… But remember this was June 1944 when I graduated, a few days after the gigantic invasion of Europe on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day…” Her own paper bouquet has been saved for nearly seventy years, and the real fern leaf is still as vivid as ever. Someone did an excellent job of designing paper roses and lilies-of-the-valley.
A sailor with his wife and mother in an antique photo from my collection. The back reads “October 1943, Oxnard, California”.
A Sentimental Journey
In spring of 1945, the day she had been waiting for had finally arrived. Bill was sent home from Italy on rotation. (He had been overseas since 1942.) Betty recalls, “Bill kept visiting me in San Diego from wherever he was stationed and we were engaged in April 1945. That was the year of one of the hardest fought battles in Europe, and in April 1945, Rusty, the brand new husband of one of my classmates, was killed in action there. In May of 1945, just a short time after Rusty died, Germany surrendered, and the European War was over. Still Bill was not yet eligible for demobilization. Service men had to obtain a certain number of points based on years of service, combat, etc., etc. to be eligible for “release” from the service. Bill finally obtained that “number” and was released from the service in July 1945, right before my birthday. Rationing was still in effect. War with Japan was still raging – – – and then came the atomic bomb…….and the surrender of the Japanese.”
This souvenir from the Hollywood Palladium recalls an evening of dancing in the mid-1940s. From Betty’s personal collection.
A New Beginning
But back to fashion: Betty explains, “When the ‘New Look’ came in, it was not until the fashion industry of France had begun to retool with ready available quantities of fabrics, and a war-weary public ready to spend money on them….about 1947. ” Betty also told me that when Dior’s New Look arrived on the fashion scene, women were quite opposed to it! “We all said, ‘I would never wear that strange new style! Those skirts halfway down to their ankles look ridiculous!'” But sure enough, within a few years Betty’s generation had adopted the new style, which meant that the coat she’d been given for her wedding trousseau was much shorter than her dresses!
Dior’s “New Look” fashions took a while to catch on with some young girls.
When at last Betty and her husband married, their lives were like many other young couples of their day – they worked hard, saved all they could for a home of their own, and somehow survived on a salary of 75 cents an hour. Their first car was the 1928 Model A Ford (shown below) which Betty detested! She was most humiliated to drive around in it in general, but the worst times were when they went to Bullock’s Department Store that offered valet parking. How she would hurry to the sidewalk so the other ladies shopping there wouldn’t know it was her vehicle!
Eventually the Woodwards were able to buy a comfortable house in a new neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. They raised four children, watched the country change through the fifties and sixties, and enjoyed their lives as much as possible.
A charming 1950s family photo.
Bill passed away in the early 1990s, and Betty continued to be a kind, caring individual to all who knew her. Today, Betty lives in the same adorable house they bought over fifty years ago. Outside are huge trees that her children planted as saplings in kindergarten, and inside, her walls are the most gorgeous shades of mauve, lavender, and pink! Except for her very pampered, furry kitty cat, her house is rather like the interior of a fine doll house. If you didn’t know about her history, it might never come up – most people probably just see her as a sweet lady with the most beautiful white hair and a curly coiffure reminiscent of the 1950s. But the truth is that Betty, each young person in her school, and her entire generation were the backbone of America for many years. Had it not been for the sacrifices these men and women made last century, the United States may never have survived. This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks to our grandparents’ generation who gave up their goals, dreams, and sometimes their very lives so that America could remain free!